The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 5 View Master Complete Reel Set 1950's-1960's Popeye,pinocchio,munstersDesert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master With 2 Reels - Brand New In BoxTwo Viewmaster 3-dimension Viewer W/ Huge Lot ReelsVintage View-master ( Tiki Gardens ) Desert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master With 2 Reels - Brand New In Box (teal)Antique Vintage Stereo Viewer Stereoscope Underwood & Underwood MahogonyVintage Sawyer's View-master +45 Reels In Bakelite BoxDesert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master With 2 Reels Brand New!Desert Trip 2016 Festival Box Program & Viewmaster No TicketsDesert Trip Festival Box, Program & 3d Viewmaster Dylan Stones Mccartney No TixDesert Trip 2016 Festival Box Program & Viewmaster No Tickets Rolling StonesDesert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master Yellow- Brand New In Box Vintage Viewmaster Teal Case, Viewer And 55 ReelsDesert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master With 2 Reels - Brand New In Box!Vintage Lot Of 45 View Master Reels W/ Black Sawyer Viewmaster Vintage Viewmaster & Reels - Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, FlintstoneLot Of View Master Viewers & Reels, Barbie, Scooby Doo, Nemo, Peter Pan & MoreOpen Sawyer's View-master Bangkok Thailand Palaces (b246) 3 Reel Set + Booklet1950s And 60s Viewmaster Collection In Case With ViewerVintage Gaf Red, White. Blue Viewmaster With 44 Reels U.s.a.Lot Of 4 New View-master Reels Rudolph Cinderella Bambi & Mickey MouseViewmaster Lot 22 Reels Muppets Disney 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Chip & DaleView-master Travel Lot, Switzerland, Trans-canada Highway, The Holy Land & MoreViewmaster View Master Lot With Viewer And 50+ Reels & 2 Cases Disney Discovery- Realist Electric Stereo Viewer Model 2062Lot Of 4 Vintage Sawyer's View-master Projector, Viewers, Bakelite Box, 64 Reels10 Boulder City Nevada The Desert Oasis Gold Center View-master ReelRare View-master "howard The Duck" Set! Very, Very Nice Condition!Kodak Kodaslide Stereo Viewer Ii Ac Stereo Slide ViewerVintage View-master ( London Airport )Vintage Viewmaster, With Reels And CaseDesert Trip Commemorative 3d View Master With 2 Reels CompleteKool-aid Retailer Display Setup Guide Viewmaster Slide Stereo Viewer Vintage15 Las Vegas Nevada Blue Ring Hand-lettered View-master ReelView-master W/ Over 35 Sightseeing Picture Reels Us Parks & Calif. Ls/nrVintage Assorted Lot Of View Master Reels Disney, Mother Goose, Lone Ranger, EtcVintage View-master ( Mecca ) Vintage View-master ( Ida Cason Callaway Gardens ) Vintage View-master ( Istanbul )View-master Children's Reels Sets /3--disney Aladdin #3088 & The Lion King #3095Three Vintage View-master Reels: Batman Reels 1-2-3 Gap Talking View Master Heidi Snoopy Disney Disneyland Reels 3d LotView Master 3d Viewer - Red With Orange Lever Works!Vintage Pocket Stereoscope 3d Viewer Stereo Viewer W/ SlidesVintage Lot Of 10 Gaf Viewmaster Reel Sets 1960/70 Total Of 30 View-master Reels2 Stereoscopic Atlas Of Human Anatomy-sawyer View Master Reels-133-152 AbdomenVintage Gaf View Master + Lot Of 55+ Reels With Reels Travel Case99 Vintage View-master Reels & View-master Storage CaseViewmaster View Finder With 3-d Slides Six Million Dollar Man View-master Original 3 Disc Complete Set -b559Vintage 1984 Michael Jackson Thriller Viewmaster 3d Reels Vintage View-master ( Museum Of Science And Industry--still Sealed )View-master Library BoxRare! The Flintstones Cartoon Photo Hanna Barbera Studios View Master Art #1Vintage View-master ( Versailles )1960s Batman And Star Trek Viewmaster Sets1965 View-master Barbie's Around The World Trip Rare! Walt Disney's Bambi Cartoon 8 X 10 Color Photo Viewmaster Art #2Rare! Walt Disney's Peter Pan Cartoon 8 X 10 Color Photo Viewmaster Art #1B376 Walt Disney Presents Mary Poppins - 3 Viewmaster Reels W/ Booklet - B